Patagonia dams conflict: From outrage to elation

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“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead

Beginning with the “crazy” idea of a small conservation group, the campaign Patagonia Without Dams has snowballed into one of the greatest environmental movements in history.

It all began in 1995 with the creation of the Bio Bio Action Group (GABB) and their battle with Endesa, who proposed the construction of six hydroelectric dams on the Bio Bio River in south-central Chile. In 2004, there were still only two environmental organizations combating Endesa’s invasion of Patagonia, but then the snowball started to pick up momentum. In the summer of 2005 the Coalition for Aysén Reserve of Life (formed in response to Noranda’s Alumysa project in Aysén) and the Defenders of the Spirit of Patagonia joined their ranks, and in 2007 the four organizations formed the Council in Defense of Patagonia, which is now currently made up of 77 affiliated organizations as well as numerous other groups. In order to complete the work started by those such as GABB and the Coalition for Aysén Reserve of Life, it is now necessary, as before, to unite with other groups and individuals like the International Rivers Network, Greenpeace, CODEFF, Mandred Max-Neef, and Contreras Manfredi to tackle the threat of development in Patagonia.

Not too long ago, only 30 percent of Chileans were against dams in Patagonia. That number would only grow, with 61 percent of Chileans rallying against the dam projects in the days leading to the approval of the Environmental Impact Assessment Report (EIA) on May 9, 2011. President Michelle Bachelet once considered 60 percent to be a line that no politician should cross. Thus, the citizens’ opposition to the project should have made it impossible for the present government to support the dam project.

The outrage and protests spawned in Santiago and other Chilean cities by the approval of the EIA of HidroAysén on the 9th of May was greater than anything this country has seen in the past 30 years. The city of Coyhaique produced its largest recorded protest ever, helping to raise the opposition against HidroAysén to more than 74 percent nationally. Following the demonstrations, the dam projects are clearly no longer viable from a political, financial, or legal standpoint.

Now a national cause, the Patagonia Without Dams campaign has completed the initial stages of protest following the EIA approval. The movement is a national majority. That means we need new strategies to prepare for the next phase. The raw power that manifested itself in demonstrations across the country must be transformed into proposals and bills in the political arena.

The Coalition for Aysén Reserve of Life is working on draft legislation concerning national energy. We also are pushing for new laws concerning the recovery of water for public consumption, land-use zoning and valorization of land, de-centralization, and the declaration of Patagonia a United Nations World Heritage area. We must work to ensure these and other proposals are passed into concrete measures and laws in order to better protect Patagonia over the long-term from destructive mega-projects.

These kind of proposals promote sustainable development in Patagonia and are for the common good of everyone involved. Sustainability implies a better quality of life. Instead of aspiring to become rich and powerful, only to be a slave to consumerism, would it not be better to aspire to be happier?

By chance, I recently came across an article by the travel guidebook company Lonely Planet which discusses the happiest places in the world. The rankings were mostly made up of small, tranquil, virtually unknown countries, cities, and towns which place an emphasis on social services and a smile. Included in the rankings is the beautiful Pacific island Vanuatu, famous for its relaxed and hospitable environment. Also high on the list? Montreal, Canada, which is praised for its cleanliness, multicultural atmosphere, and their festival “Just for Laughs.” Colombia is ranked high because of its scenery, music, and national hedonism. And there is Happy, Texas, the “town without a frown.” Bhutan in the Himalayas is on the list for their lack of traffic lights, its natural beauty, their Buddhist monasteries and their own index of happiness per person. Malawi, Africa, is ranked high for its spectacular national park and warm welcomes to visitors despite its poverty. Andorra, a small country in Europe, is mentioned because it has the highest life expectancy in the world. Finally, included on this list is Denmark, which tops most global happiness studies with its extremely high standard of living, and Hidakagwa, Japan, with their parade of floats where the participants shout to the crowd “warau, warau!” (laugh, laugh)!

So, apart from not building dams, can we also try to make a happy Patagonia? Judging from the examples above, it shouldn’t be that hard a task.

Photo: HidroAysen protest in Santiago, May 20, 2011. 


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